The Lost Notebooks

When Hank Williams died, he left behind a scuffed, embroidered brown leather briefcase. Like its owner, the briefcase appeared weathered beyond its years, yet it retained a dignified bearing that abuse couldn’t erase. Hank used the briefcase to carry bound notebooks, among other items, darkening their pages with lyrics and song ideas. Some were fully finished, some just started. Once full, he would place the notebooks in a cardboard box, where he also dropped lyrics written on hotel stationery and other scraps of paper.

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When it came time to record, Hank would refer to the notebooks and pick a few to show his producer, Fred Rose. By the end of December 1952, four of these notebooks existed, all featuring songs not yet recorded or performed. When Hank took his last breath, the promise and poetry of the unrecorded songs seemed to perish with him.

This album, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, breathes life into the haunted words left on those pages. In doing so, the legacy of Hank Williams, only twenty-nine when he died, further extends into a new century. The Lost Notebooks presents twelve recordings of new, original songs that Hank had started writing prior to his death late New Year’s Eve, 1952, or early New Year’s Day, 1953.

The history of Hank’s notebooks is as complex as the legend himself. Yet, in the end, what matters most are the songs, and these new works rise from the ether with ghostly relevance. As with his many standards, these new recordings tap straight into the soul of man. This is songwriting at its most artful and most powerful.

Just as bones remain unchanged with time, so do certain emotions. The emotions Hank left in these notebooks needed expert excavators to dust them off and mine their strengths. The project began with Bob Dylan, who has always expressed his love for Hank Williams and the influence he absorbed from his work: “The sound of Hank Williams’s voice went through me like an electric rod,” Dylan wrote in his autobiography, Chronicles, Volume 1. “When I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege.”

Dylan was the first artist to lift one of Hank’s notebook songs from its resting place, finish it, put music to it, and record it. With help from veteran music industry manager and A&R executive Mary Martin, who worked with Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman in the 1960s, other artists were enlisted, most chosen because of their songwriting and arranging abilities and their affinity for delivering songs reminiscent of Hank’s earthy directness. The guest artists tapped into Hank’s musical DNA to create something that is both his and their own. These artists and these voices—some with decades of experience, some still forging fresh paths—all found an essential truth in these songs, and then embellished them with their talents and personalities.

The results speak volumes. These new songs resemble rich farmland soil: Their strengths are as old as the earth, expressing emotions that have always been and always will be; yet at this moment they offer fresh fruit, creating a bountiful harvest that is as universal yet as personal as a lonesome night or a good morning kiss.

These recordings underscore, yet again, the distinct brilliance of Hank Williams as a songwriter. Hank wrote songs the way he drank whiskey: like there was no tomorrow. For Hank, drinking was a private affair, done in dark corners and hiding from the scowls of family, friends, and band mates. Drinking wasn’t a communal, shared activity for Williams. It was a pain-killing pursuit exercised alone.

He wrote songs like that too: Hunched over, locked away in his mind, furiously scrawling and crossing out words to pare a song to its essential emotions. He mostly wrote alone, occasionally turning to his mentor Fred Rose or friends like Vic McAlpin and Ray Price to help him finish the mission. That’s what happens on The Lost Notebooks too; like-minded writers, admirers, and acolytes step up to help complete what Hank started.

Many myths surround Hank Williams, myths that those who knew him best are quick to dispel. He wasn’t a doomed, introspective genius anymore than he was a reckless rebel tearing his way through honky-tonks and wild women. Instead, he was a prankster, a man who enjoyed gathering friends for hunting and fishing trips, and a doting father who called out to his son from radio shows and saddled up a newly purchased horse to present to his stepdaughter at a front-yard birthday party.

The alcoholism, however, was always there. Born September 17, 1923, in rural Alabama, Hank first lost his balance from a belly full of corn whiskey in his grade-school years, when he and a few buddies knew where railroad employees hid flasks to sip during work breaks. He lost his first job a month before his eighteenth birthday by showing up drunk for his early morning radio show at the
Montgomery, Alabama, station WSFA. By that time, he had won a talent contest, formed a band, and dropped out of school at age sixteen.

While the drinking came and went, the songwriting, once it started, remained constant. In 1943, not yet twenty, Hank sold a song, “(I’m Praying for the Day That) Peace Will Come,” to Grand Ole Opry star Pee Wee King after opening a show for him. King had a contract with Acuff-Rose Publications, Nashville’s first major country music publisher, a connection that would prove vital to Hank’s career.

Within months of marrying Audrey Sheppard Guy in December 1944, Hank published two songbooks and entered a sanitarium for alcoholism. He was twenty-one at the time. Sober for a period, he returned to the morning program on WSFA and, urged by his new bride, contacted producer and songwriter Fred Rose at Acuff-Rose Publications. In December 1946, working with Rose as producer, Hank cut his first four songs in a studio at radio station WSM in Nashville.

From the start, his distinctive style separated him from all others, no matter the genre. A dyed-in-the-wool country boy, even when dressed in elegantly tailored Nudie suits and crisp cowboy hats, he had a limited education and a similarly limited view of the world. Yet he owned a preternatural gift for succinctly and colorfully capturing the hopes and heartbreak of a generation of men and women.

Like Hank, the people populating his songs were pulled between the Christian, small-town values of the Depression Era South and the prosperous, rapidly changing postwar world in which he came of age. When Hank wrote, “I left my home down on the rural route / I told my pa I’m going steppin’ out,” he summed up a newly mobile world of endless possibilities of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the rise of highways and automobiles allowed those born in the agrarian South to seek opportunities in urban areas.

With these shifts, values began to change. Soldiers from back-country areas returned from Europe and the Pacific with worldlier ideas of pleasures and how to savor their hard-won freedoms. Meanwhile, women also enjoyed newfound freedoms, brought on when they were encouraged to take jobs during wartime, to fend for themselves while so many men were continents away, and to deal with the uncertainties of whether family members, friends, and lovers would return. When the men did come home, newly liberated women both enticed and confounded them, and both sexes struggled to adjust to a changing culture.

Better than any songwriter, Hank’s songs captured the joys, tensions, and heartbreak of this evolving world: There’s “Ramblin’ Man,” which conveyed the dark side of a man suddenly free to go wherever he wants without the anchors or responsibilities of home; there’s “I Saw the Light,” about a rambler who turns back to the moral values he had left behind at home; there’s “Hey, Good Lookin’,” which joyously captures the excitement of the possibility of hooking up with a new partner; and there’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which describes the bottomless ache of feeling as if there’s no friend or family member to turn to when life and love turns cold.

The list goes on and on. Hank’s songs could express an unbounded joy at the pleasures available to him, or he could articulate the conflicting feelings of lust and guilt that stirred inside him as he considered the temptations of this new world. His songs contained an enormously wide variety of emotions and perspectives. But much of his most memorable work delved into the loneliness of a lost soul or the nearly unbearable pain that accompanies betrayal or a relationship in turmoil. He could deal with this topic humorously, as in “Move It on Over,” but it’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and many more, that expose emotions in ways no songwriter had done prior to Williams.

Certainly, a key to his becoming a hero to so many listeners came from how he articulated the most difficult of emotions in an era when men, still molded by the war years, were conditioned to hide their feelings and charge through any problem with a steely-eyed swagger. Men of that era weren’t supposed to succumb to heartbreak or suffer from personal conflicts. They didn’t openly wrestle with moral questions or lonely nights. Hank gave voice to those who couldn’t admit to the psychological quandaries everyone at some point had to endure. And listeners loved him for it.

More than any songwriter before him, Hank drew on real-life experiences and emotions when crafting his great work. The indelible way he expressed his joy, his distress, and his spiritual searching set the standard against which all songwriters now measure themselves. Hank’s monumental legacy becomes even more notable when realizing he issued only thirty singles in his lifetime—and five more posthumously. Eleven went to #1. All were recorded in less than six years, between December 1946 and September 1952. Yet that small body of work changed the course of American music, forever altering the sound of country music and motivating songwriters of all styles to dare to be as emotionally bare and as unabashedly real as Hank had been.

Bare emotions run throughout The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, and these new songs honor and extend the artistry and the legacy of the great Hank Williams.

In his classic “I Saw the Light,” Hank wrote of a man who had wandered aimlessly through a life filled with sin. But there was nothing aimless about Hank’s songwriting. He shot straight to the heart. Even on the night he died, on a scrap of paper found on the backseat floorboard, there were incredibly moving lines written in a shaky hand, suggesting that even as he rushed to an early end, Hank fought the darkness by expressing himself in short, impactful verse.

These new songs, each in their own way, express something visceral and important about individual experience, about our most intimate relationships, and about the struggle between sin and redemption. Through the talents of several capable acolytes, Hank Williams has risen yet again to peer into the darkness and to help the rest of us see the light.

THE HISTORY OF THE NOTEBOOKS

To explain why this musical bounty has surfaced at this time requires tracing the tale of the four treasured notebooks. These sacred scrolls have a story as complicated as the man who once wrote them.

Upon Hank Williams’s death, his mother, Lillian Stone, contacted Acuff-Rose Publications to alert them to the existence of a cardboard box containing lyrics Hank had written but hadn’t recorded. In early 1953, Acuff-Rose took possession of the box, finding four notebooks of songs, as well as other lyrics scrawled on hotel stationery and other scraps of paper.

As time passed, company president Wesley Rose made sure the notebooks were treated as the treasures they were. Copyrights were applied to the unrecorded songs, sixty-six in all. Peggy Lamb, a longtime Acuff-Rose employee, kept tabs on the notebooks in a locked, fireproof safe next to her desk, along with other items highly valued by the publishing firm.

As the music industry consolidated into bigger corporations, Acuff-Rose’s catalog of classic songs became valuable property. Each time the Acuff-Rose copyrights were purchased, the notebooks found a new home —and, each time, Peggy Lamb moved with them.

When Gaylord Broadcasting (now Gaylord Entertainment) bought Acuff-Rose Publications in 1985, the notebooks at first remained in the longtime Acuff-Rose offices on Franklin Road in Nashville. But in 1986, Gaylord moved its various publishing and recording companies to new headquarters on Seventeenth Avenue in the heart of Nashville’s Music Row. The notebooks were put in two large, fireproof vaults along with other important historical Acuff-Rose documents.

Years later, then-Mercury Records executive Kira Florita began working with the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum on what became a Grammy-winning box set, The Complete Hank Williams. During her research, Florita learned about the notebooks from Lamb. Florita remembered the notebooks when co-authoring, with Colin Escott, Snapshots from the Lost Highway, a book filled with images of Hank Williams memorabilia. Published in November 2001, the book included photographed images of several unrecorded songs from the notebooks.

At the same time, Florita led the Mercury / Lost Highway Records marketing effort for the album Timeless, a multi-artist tribute to Hank Williams. That album, released in September 2001, also won a Grammy Award. Veteran music industry leader Mary Martin, who co-produced the Timeless album, first learned of the wealth of unrecorded Hank lyrics when she saw the Snapshots book.

“I didn’t know the notebooks existed until I saw the photographs in Kira’s book,” Martin said. “I began to think something should be done with these songs. We had just won a Grammy for the Timeless album, and it seemed like a good time to keep a light shining on Hank Williams. The interest was obviously there.”

In 2002, as Martin’s interest in the unrecorded songs grew, Sony / ATV Music Publishing bought the prized Acuff-Rose catalog. Of forty-eight Opryland Music employees, only six were retained; Peggy Lamb was one of them. Once again, the notebooks were relocated and stored in fireproof vaults where the company’s most valuable materials were kept.

After the sale was finalized, Martin forged ahead. In late 2002, Florita, Lamb, Martin, and Sony / ATV president and chief executive officer Donna Hilley had lunch to discuss possibilities for the songs. Eventually the four women decided to find a well-known, well-regarded artist—one who considered Hank Williams a hero and influence—to record an album’s worth of the unheard songs.

The first artist approached, Bob Dylan, showed a strong interest. As discussions continued, it was decided that Dylan’s Sony-related company, Egyptian Records, would become involved. It also was decided that, instead of recording a full album himself, Dylan would pick one of the songs to record, and other compatible artists would be invited to choose a song to record, coming up with the arrangement and, if need be, finishing the lyrics.

Martin came up with a list of artists to consider, with help from Dylan and his representatives. The next artist invited, country star Alan Jackson, jumped at the opportunity. From there, the focus zeroed in on artists who were also established songwriters and, more specifically, on those who had demonstrated an affinity for Hank’s songs. Eventually, the list came down to the thirteen artists heard on The Lost Notebooks.

As recording started, the story of the notebooks took a bizarre turn. A Chicago Sun-Times article surfaced in 2006 that two of the notebooks, unbeknownst to Sony, had been purchased by two country music collectors. At the Sony / ATV offices, a search into a locked vault found that, indeed, two notebooks were missing. A police investigation was launched, and ultimately Sony regained possession of the notebooks and the handwritten songs.

With the release of The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, not only do these historically treasured notebooks endure, but now a dozen songs from within can be heard for the first time.

Michael McCall
Country Music Hall of Fame®and Museum

 

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